NCF Nation: Eric Norwood

Recent SEC signing class steals

January, 27, 2012
Everyone wants the five-stars. No recruiting collection would be complete without them.

But as we've seen over the years, not all of them really pan out, leaving fans and coaches pouting along the way. However, when one of those five-stars busts, there's always an unheralded recruit that finds a way to steal the scene.

Today, we'll look at some of the best signing class steals from the past few years. We'll use ESPN's player rankings and since the ESPN rankings go back to 2006, we'll only go back that far.

These are players who might not have been so highly recruited coming out of high school, but were stars at the college level. We could have gone on for days with this list, but it had to be shortened.

Here they are:

  • [+] EnlargeNick Fairley
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNick Fairley was unheralded but broke out during in 2010 and was the nation's best lineman that season.
    Jake Bequette, DE, Arkansas: He was unranked in the 2007 class and was actually a tight end prospect. He received a grade of 40, but finished his Arkansas career as a top pass rusher, with 24 career sacks, 31 tackles for loss and forced eight fumbles.
  • Vick Ballard, RB, Mississippi State: He was a junior college transfer who wasn't highly sought after at all. But it didn't take Ballard long to make a name for himself as he quickly became a star for the Bulldogs in his two seasons, rushing for 2,157 yards and 28 touchdowns.
  • Ahmad Black, S, Florida: He came out of high school as the No. 49 safety and wasn't ranked in his region. He started off as a cornerback for Florida, but moved to safety and became quite the player. Black finished his career with 244 tackles and 13 interceptions. He also returned three interceptions for touchdowns.
  • Brandon Boykin, CB, Georgia: He was rated the No. 41 corner and No. 267 in his region in 2008. At Georgia, he was a dangerous return man, ranking second all-time in the SEC in kickoff return yards (2,593) and is the only player in SEC history with three 100-yard plays of any kind. He was also a tremendous corner, recording nine interceptions, 18 pass breakups and 152 tackles. He was a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award in 2011.
  • Randall Cobb, WR, Kentucky: Cobb was ranked as the No. 86 athlete back in 2008 and was overlooked by just about everyone. He played just about everywhere in college and finished his Kentucky career with 1,661 receiving yards, 1,313 rushing yards, 689 passing yards and 1,700 return yards. He also had 42 total touchdowns.
  • Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn: The JUCO transfer signed with Auburn in 2007, but didn't qualify and finally made it to the Plains in 2009. He wasn't a highly rated JUCO prospect and was actually the No. 32-rated OT in 2007. He was an absolute star in 2010, setting the Auburn single-season record with 24.0 tackles for loss and had 11.5 sacks. He also earned the Lombardi Award for the nation's best lineman.
  • Jerry Franklin, LB, Arkansas: He was a relative nobody coming out of high school as an unranked wide receiver. All he did in his four years was lead the Razorbacks in tackles each year and finished second all-time at Arkansas with 376 total tackles in his career.
  • Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt: He was unranked and received a grade of 40 as a safety prospect in 2008. He turned into one of the SEC's best cover corners with the Commodores and left Vanderbilt tied for first in school history with 15 interceptions.
  • Brandon James, RB/KR, Florida: He was ranked as the 111th running back back in 2006 and ranked 345th in his region. James made his mark as a return man, as he finished his Florida career with four SEC and 11 Florida records for kickoff and punt returns. He is still the SEC career leader in return yards (4,089) and had five touchdowns on returns.
  • Barrett Jones, OL, Alabama: He was ranked as the No. 28 offensive tackle back in 2008, but enters his senior year with the Crimson Tide as arguably the nation's best offensive lineman. His versatility really showed in 2011 when he played just about every position on Alabama's offensive line and won the Outland Trophy as the nation's top interior lineman.
  • Tyrann Matheiu, CB, LSU: He was the No. 36 cornerback in 2010 and was unranked in his region with a grade of 77. LSU was his only major offer, but he's been one of the most exciting -- and dangerous -- players to watch on defense and in the return game the last two seasons. He was a Heisman finalist in 2011, led LSU in tackles (71), has forced 11 fumbles in two seasons and has 10 career takeaways.
  • Dexter McCluster, RB, Ole Miss: He was ranked the No. 71 running back back in 2006 and was No. 189 in his region. McCluster became an all-purpose star in the SEC during his four years, totaling 1,703 receiving yards, 1,955 rushing yards and 23 offensive touchdowns.
  • Eric Norwood, LB, South Carolina: He was ranked the No. 99 defensive end back in 2006 and was No. 387 in his region, but he had quite the career at South Carolina, leaving with the all-time record in tackles for loss (54.5) and sacks (29). He finished his career with 255 tackles as well.
  • Danny Trevathan, LB, Kentucky: He was an unranked linebacker with a grade of 40 coming out of high school in 2008. He became one of the league's top linebackers in his final two seasons, leading the SEC in tackles both seasons. He finished his career with 372 tackles.
  • Prentiss Waggner, DB, Tennessee: He was the No. 50 corner in 2008 and was 305th in his region. Waggner has really been one of Tennessee's best defenders the past two seasons, playing both safety and corner. He has defended 11 passes, recording seven interceptions. He can be a shutdown corner and a ball-hawking safety.
  • Jarius Wright, WR, Arkansas: He came out of high school as the No. 44 wide receiver in 2008 and was ranked 115th in his region. His 2011 season, in which he led the SEC in receiving, gave him the single-season records in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. He is also the Arkansas leader in career catches (168) and receiving yards (2,934).
No matter how you slice it, some familiar faces in the SEC are gone.

In fact, some might say the league has lost its star power, especially when you consider the likes of Tim Tebow, Rolando McClain, Eric Berry, Brandon Spikes, Joe Haden, Javier Arenas, Dexter McCluster, Anthony Dixon, Eric Norwood and Terrence Cody are all now embarking on their professional careers.

[+] EnlargeRyan Mallett
Kim Klement/US PresswireArkansas hopes quarterback Ryan Mallett will rise up and be one of the league's new stars.
Can any league, even one that captured four straight BCS national championships, sustain such deep personnel losses and expect to stay atop the college football mountaintop?

“I don’t think it will be any different,” said Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, entering his third season in the SEC. “You’re going to see those other guys step up and be good players and be leaders. Hopefully, we have a few on our team.”

No doubt, and a good place to start is a marquee quarterback. Arkansas has one of the best passers in the country in junior Ryan Mallett, who threw 30 touchdown passes a year ago and is the ideal building block.

If the Hogs can plug the holes on defense, they might end up being one of the new faces of the league.

The last couple of years, it’s pretty much been an Alabama/Florida stranglehold.

The Crimson Tide haven't lost a regular-season game in two years. They were 14-0 in winning their first national championship in 17 years last season.

The Gators had a 22-game winning streak snapped last season by the Crimson Tide. Prior to last season’s breakthrough by Alabama, Florida had won two of the last three national titles.

And the one in that stretch that wasn’t won by Florida was won by LSU in 2007.

The odds of the SEC making it five straight with so many new faces playing starring roles?

Well, that depends on how you look at it.

The league does have a chance to be more balanced in 2010. A year ago, there was a pretty clear separation between Alabama and Florida and everybody else.

But with the Gators losing five juniors to the NFL in addition to Tebow, Spikes and the other seniors, they’re going to have their work cut out merely getting out of the East alive.

As soon as you say that, you look around the East and realize there’s not a clear-cut challenger. Everybody has their warts, and everybody has major question marks to address this spring.

South Carolina has 19 starters returning, but this is South Carolina we're talking about. The Gamecocks have made a living of stumbling all over themselves any time they face real expectations.

Georgia has 10 starters coming back on defense, but will be guided by a first-year starter at quarterback, probably a redshirt freshman who will be taking his first college snap. The Bulldogs are also overhauling their defense, as Todd Grantham takes over for Willie Martinez as coordinator.

Georgia last played in the SEC championship game in 2005, which was also the last time the Bulldogs won an SEC title.

The door might not be cracked open this much again in the East for a long time when you examine how relentlessly and how well Meyer has recruited at Florida -- regardless of how bizarre the whole resignation/leave of absence flip-flop was.

New stars will emerge for the Gators, and don’t be surprised if junior quarterback John Brantley is one of those stars next season.

There’s a reason nobody has repeated as champion in this league since Tennessee did it in 1997 and 1998. It’s the same reason this league has been so cyclical over the last two decades.

On any Saturday, the eighth best team can beat the best team. And when the tide turns in this league, it turns quickly.

[+] EnlargeMarcell Dareus
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireDespite losing many starters on defense, Alabama has young players like Marcell Dareus waiting to take up the mantle.
Just ask Tennessee.

Speaking of the Tide, the class of the league remains defending national champion Alabama, which has a chance to be even better on offense in 2010.

The defense loses nine starters, but that’s deceiving. The young talent Nick Saban stockpiled on that side of the ball has simply been waiting its chance.

Marcell Dareus, Nico Johnson, Dre Kirkpatrick, Kerry Murphy, Dont’a Hightower and the rest of their cohorts get a chance to step into leading roles this fall.

Arkansas isn’t the only team in the West capable of taking down Alabama. Auburn and LSU are both talented enough to make a run. Like Arkansas, Auburn has to prove it can take that step defensively to play championship-caliber football. LSU has to rediscover itself after finishing 11th in the league in total offense a year ago.

Looking for a surprise?

Mississippi State is poised to be one of the league’s most improved teams. The Bulldogs might not be ready to contend for a championship, but it would be a huge disappointment in Starkville next season if they’re not in a bowl game.

They also have one of those fresh, new faces that should become familiar to just about everybody next season.

Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen is counting the different ways to get the ball in Chad Bumphis’ hands after a promising debut season in the SEC.

So sit back and enjoy. It all cranks back up on Friday when LSU opens spring practice.

If recent history is any indication in this conference, it will all end on Jan. 10 in Glendale, Ariz., site of the 2011 BCS National Championship Game.
Positions will be won and lost all across the SEC this spring.

And in some cases, nothing will be settled until preseason practice resumes in August.

Here are five position battles to keep an eye on as spring practice in the SEC gets under way on Feb. 25 with LSU kicking it off. Two months later, Arkansas and Kentucky will both shut it down on April 24 with their spring games:

1. Georgia quarterback: Joe Cox won’t be around to blame anymore. He’s gone after one year on the job, meaning this spring will be one big scrap for the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback job. Junior Logan Gray is one of the most athletic players on the team and will probably get first dibs on proving that he’s the guy. Whether or not he throws the ball well enough to play winning football in the SEC remains to be seen, which means it will probably come down between redshirt freshmen Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger. Both were on campus for spring practice a year ago and know the system. Mettenberger is a taller, pocket passer with a big arm, while Murray possesses the kind of versatility all coaches are looking for in a quarterback. The early indications are that Murray has that “it” factor and may be the one to beat.

2. Alabama cornerback: Not only is Alabama short one cornerback, but both starting cornerbacks from its national championship team are gone with Kareem Jackson leaving early for the NFL. Don’t feel too sorry for the Crimson Tide, because there’s a cache of talent waiting in the wings. Sophomore Dre Kirkpatrick has all sorts of potential after coming in last season as one of the top defensive back prospects in the country. He certainly isn’t lacking for confidence. Nick Saban also went out and signed two of the top cornerbacks prospects in the country this year in DeMarcus Milliner and John Fulton, and both players are already on campus and will go through spring practice. Don’t forget about LSU transfer Phelon Jones, either, and junior college newcomer DeQuan Menzie will arrive this summer.

3. Tennessee running back: Montario Hardesty was one of the most pleasant surprises in the league last season. He was a workhorse for the Vols after enduring injury concerns for much of his career. He led the SEC with 282 carries while rushing for 1,345 yards, which was 300 yards more than he’d gained in his first three seasons combined. The reality is that it may take a couple of players to replace his production. Sophomore Bryce Brown is a big, strong runner who showed flashes last season, but was probably overhyped coming out of high school when he was tabbed by some as the No. 1 prospect in the country. The guy to watch is junior Tauren Poole, who didn’t get much of a chance under the previous staff. He’s got to watch his fumbling. Redshirt freshman Toney Williams was extremely impressive last spring before tearing his ACL in summer workouts, while sophomore David Oku is a guy who can catch it and run it.

4. South Carolina weak side linebacker: It’s known more commonly around Columbia as Eric Norwood’s position, although the Gamecocks were able to move the three-time All-SEC selection around to different spots during his career. He provided so many big plays over the last couple of seasons that replacing him won’t be easy. One of the guys who will probably get the first shot is sophomore Reggie Bowens, who has great speed and has been trying to find the right position after coming to South Carolina as a safety. He was out the entire season two years ago with a shoulder injury and was plagued by knee problems last season. Junior Shaq Wilson had to move inside last season because of injuries in the middle, but also could end up moving back to the weak side. Tony Straughter and Quin Smith are two other guys to keep an eye on this spring.

5. Mississippi State running back: Few players in the league left bigger shoes to fill than Anthony Dixon when you consider how big a part of the Mississippi State offense he was last season. There’s no substitute for being able to turn around and hand the ball off to a bruising back the caliber of the 245-pound Dixon. With him gone, it’s going to be a free-for-all to see who emerges as the starter. Junior Robert Elliott has been one of those “potential” guys who may be due for a breakout season. He has great speed and acceleration, but just needs to do it on a consistent basis. Montrell Conner is a 215-pound speedster that redshirted last season. The Mississippi State staff is eager to see what he can do this spring, while junior college newcomer Vick Ballard is already enrolled and will go through spring practice. Ballard rushed for 1,728 yards and 22 touchdowns last season at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.

SEC all-bowl team

January, 12, 2010
Having had a few days now to digest the 2009 bowl season, here’s a look at the All-SEC bowl team:


[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images Tim Tebow torched Cincinnati for a career-high 482 passing yards and three TDs.
QB Tim Tebow, Florida
Broke Vince Young’s record for total offense in a BCS bowl game with 533 yards in the Gators’ 51-24 rout of Cincinnati in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Completed 31 of 35 passes for a career-high 482 yards.

RB Dexter McCluster, Ole Miss
Was there a better player in the SEC the second half of the season? McCluster rushed for 184 yards and two touchdowns in the AT&T Cotton Bowl win.

RB Mark Ingram, Alabama
Despite cramping up in the Citi BCS National Championship Game, the Heisman Trophy winner showed his grit and led the Crimson Tide with 116 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

WR Riley Cooper, Florida
Led the Gators’ offensive explosion in the Sugar Bowl with 181 receiving yards, including an 80-yard touchdown. Cooper averaged 25.9 yards on seven catches.

WR Brandon LaFell, LSU
The Tigers didn’t put up much offense, but LaFell had five catches for 87 yards, including a 24-yard touchdown. LaFell led all SEC players with 19 touchdown catches over the past two seasons.

TE Aaron Hernandez, Florida
His nine catches led all players in the Sugar Bowl, and he finished with 111 receiving yards. Hernandez opened the Gators’ scoring with a 7-yard touchdown catch.

OL John Jerry, Ole Miss
Helped clear the way for Ole Miss’ 193 rushing yards against an Oklahoma State defense that finished ranked 11th nationally against the run.

OL James Carpenter, Alabama
Combined with Mike Johnson to make the key block that helped spring Trent Richardson on his 49-yard touchdown run in the second quarter of the Citi BCS National Championship Game.

OL Justin Anderson, Georgia
The Bulldogs were playing without starting right tackle Josh Davis, and Anderson came off the bench in the second half to help give a much-needed lift to the running game.

OL Mike Johnson, Alabama
The anchor of an Alabama offensive line that paved the way for both Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson to each rush for more than 100 yards against Texas’ vaunted defense.

C Maurkice Pouncey, Florida
Spent more than five hours at Tulane Hospital with kidney stones and had several IV’s, but didn’t miss the start and led the way for the Gators up front.


DE Marcell Dareus, Alabama
Had the hit that knocked Texas quarterback Colt McCoy out of the game and also returned an interception 28 yards for a touchdown right before halftime.

DE Carlos Dunlap, Florida
Came back strong from his suspension in the SEC championship game with two sacks in the Gators’ Sugar Bowl romp.

DT Geno Atkins, Georgia
Pressured Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson relentlessly. Atkins finished with a sack and also blocked a field goal attempt in the second quarter.

DT Dan Williams, Tennessee
A rock all season long in the middle for the Vols, Williams ended his career with nine tackles, including a half a sack in the 37-14 loss to Virgina Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

LB Patrick Trahan, Ole Miss
His 34-yard fumble return for a touchdown sealed the game for the Rebels with 3:12 remaining. Trahan also had an interception on Oklahoma State’s next possession.

LB Jerry Franklin, Arkansas
Finished with 10 tackles and had a third-quarter interception that turned the game around for the Hogs. East Carolina was leading 10-0, but Franklin intercepted a pass and returned it 31 yards to set up an Arkansas field goal.

LB Eric Norwood, South Carolina
Wrapped up a record-setting career at South Carolina by leading the Gamecocks with 10 tackles in their 20-7 loss to Connecticut in the Bowl.

DB Walter McFadden, Auburn
Intercepted two passes in Auburn’s Outback Bowl win. McFadden’s first pick set up a touchdown, and he did the honors himself on the second one – returning it 100 yards for a touchdown.

DB Tramain Thomas, Arkansas
His 37-yard interception return for a touchdown tied the game in the third quarter. Thomas also tipped away a pass at the goal line in the final minutes that might have saved the game.

DB Kendrick Lewis, Ole Miss
Intercepted two passes in Ole Miss’ 21-7 Cotton Bowl victory over Oklahoma State. His big hit in the fourth quarter also forced the fumble that Patrick Trahan returned 34 yards for a touchdown to break the game open.

DB Chad Jones, LSU
Did a little bit of everything in his final game at LSU. Led the Tigers with eight tackles, including one for loss, while also forcing a fumble, breaking up a pass and blocking a kick.


K Alex Tejada, Arkansas
His 37-yard field goal in overtime was the difference in Arkansas’ 20-17 victory over East Carolina in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

P Spencer Lanning, South Carolina
In extremely cold conditions, Lanning punted seven times for a 42.3-yard average and had a long of 48 yards. He also doubles as the Gamecocks’ place-kicker.

KR Brandon Boykin, Georgia
Tied an SEC record with his third kickoff return for a touchdown this season, taking one back 81 yards to answer Texas A&M’s first touchdown. Bowl preview

January, 1, 2010
Breaking down the Bowl on Saturday (ESPN, 2 p.m. ET) between Connecticut (7-5) and South Carolina (7-5):

WHO TO WATCH: South Carolina senior outside linebacker Eric Norwood has been one of the best defensive players in the SEC for the last three seasons. He’s a three-time All-SEC selection and will leave South Carolina as the school’s all-time leader in sacks and tackles for loss. He has seven sacks this season, tying him for third in the league, and he was the catalyst for so many of the Gamecocks’ game-changing plays on defense. He’s not just a pass-rusher, either. He had an interception return for a touchdown this season and also blocked three kicks.

WHAT TO WATCH: The Gamecocks looked like they were limping to the finish for the third straight year until the regular-season finale. They’d lost three in a row, but pounded arch-rival Clemson 34-17 in their most complete performance of the season. Granted, it’s been more than a month since that game, but can the Gamecocks build off that momentum and get back to that level against the Huskies? Steve Spurrier has promised that the Gamecocks will be more focused for this bowl game than they were a year ago in the Outback Bowl when they played miserably.

WHY TO WATCH: A lot can happen between now and next season. But you get the feeling that if Spurrier is ever going to make a move in the Eastern Division at South Carolina, he better do it next season. The Gamecocks have a lot of young talent in the program, and beating Connecticut in the bowl game and getting to eight wins would set up what would certainly be an offseason of great anticipation in Columbia.

PREDICTION: One of the most underrated stories in the SEC this season was how much South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia improved. He still has to take that next step to be the kind of quarterback the Head Ball Coach wants him to be, but he played winning football most of the season. As bad as Garcia was in last year’s bowl game, he’ll be just as good in this one. That and another solid performance from Ellis Johnson’s defense will be enough to send the Gamecocks to only their fifth bowl win in school history. South Carolina 24, Connecticut 17.
Posted by's Chris Low

Well, there's no doubt who the best two teams in the SEC are. We had a pretty good idea going into Saturday's games. Now we know for sure.

It's Alabama and Florida and then everybody else.

Here's a look at what we learned in the SEC in Week 6:

Coaching excellence: We all get caught up in talent and personnel, who has a quarterback who can stretch the field and who has a front seven on defense that can make you one-dimensional. But there's something to be said for in-game coaching, too, seeing to it that you play to your strengths and take advantage of the other team's weaknesses and then adjusting accordingly as the game wears on. Winning the game is what matters, and both Florida's Urban Meyer and Alabama's Nick Saban put on a clinic in game management Saturday. Both guys played to their defense, played rather conservatively on offense and got it done in hostile environments. Some might call it dull, the kind of football that doesn't lead to a lot of highlights. Meyer and Saban call it being smart. When you're as strong as both Florida and Alabama are on defense, why not let that side of the ball win it for you? The Gators and Crimson Tide have combined to play six SEC games this season. In those six contests, they've allowed a total of five touchdowns. That's a ratio you win with every time.

Superman without his cape: Florida can win against a tough, physical defense and at a place that chews up and spits out most teams even when Tim Tebow isn't really Tim Tebow. Don't get me wrong. Tebow was good enough in the 13-3 win over LSU in Tiger Stadium and made several key plays, but he sort of felt his way into the game in the first half coming off that concussion and didn't run the ball much to start the game. He also didn't take over the game like we've seen him do on so many occasions, and part of that was a credit to LSU's defense. But for the Gators to win a game of this magnitude when Tebow averages just 2.2 yards per carry and is held to 134 yards passing tells you that there's a lot more to this team than just the Man of Steel.

Ingram's the man: As we near the midway point of the season, picking the best player in the league isn't easy. You could make arguments for a handful of guys, but I'm going with Alabama sophomore running back Mark Ingram. He's rushed for 312 yards in his last two games and is effective no matter what Alabama is trying to do. He's a terrific short-yardage runner, has shown breakaway speed, can pass-protect, catch the ball out of the backfield, and according to one SEC defensive coach I talked to, is the best runner after contact in the league. South Carolina outside linebacker Eric Norwood, Georgia receiver A.J. Green, Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain, Auburn running back Ben Tate, Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett, Tennessee safety Eric Berry and Tebow would all get some votes if we were picking the Player of the Year Award right now, and all are deserving. But my choice would be Ingram. He's the very definition of what a football player should be.

Reality check for Auburn: The Tigers still have a chance to have a very good season, but they're not as good as their 5-0 record suggested going into Saturday's 44-23 loss to Arkansas. It starts on defense. Simply put, this isn't a very good Auburn defense. The Tigers have now given up 400 or more yards of total offense in three of their six games. Gus Malzahn's offense had a bad day, in particular a bad start, but the Tigers will bounce back on that side of the ball. It's the defense you wonder about and the part of Auburn's team that doesn't resemble right now what an SEC contender typically looks like. The Tigers had lived off getting turnovers this season. West Virginia turned it over six times, or the Mountaineers would have easily scored 40-plus in that game back in September. But against Arkansas, Auburn forced just one turnover. In short, this is a defense that needs to improve if the Tigers want to finish this season the way they started it.

Stormy times for Richt: Walking in Mark Richt's shoes wouldn't be a lot of fun this week. He's got an average football team that doesn't do anything particularly well with any consistency. It looks like it's going to be a long season in Athens given what we saw in Knoxville on Saturday. The most indicting thing for Richt and his staff is how much better prepared Tennessee looked and how much more the Vols were into it emotionally in their 45-19 shellacking of the Bulldogs. Hey, this is a beating that would have been a lot worse if Georgia doesn't get a deflected interception for a touchdown and if Tennessee had any clue about how to cover a kickoff. Richt has been too good, too consistent and too classy for any reasonable Georgia fan to call for his job. But unless there's a dramatic turnaround this season, he's going to have to make some major changes on his staff ... or he's going to be the one in trouble.

SEC helmet stickers, Week 4

September, 26, 2009

Posted by's Chris Low

The stars were out this week in the SEC. A lot of familiar names were making big plays.

Here are the helmet stickers for Week 4:

South Carolina outside linebacker Eric Norwood: He's been the SEC's best defensive player four weeks into the season. Norwood had two sacks in South Carolina's 16-10 win over Ole Miss on Thursday night to raise his league-leading total to six. He also partially blocked a punt and generally made life miserable for Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead. There's not a player in the league right now who has made a bigger impact on his team to this point than Norwood.

Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy: For a guy who was supposed to be one of the question marks for Alabama coming into the season, McElroy has been off-the-charts good. He threw for a career-high 291 yards and three touchdowns in the 35-7 win over Arkansas. He has seven touchdown passes and one interception this season and has gone 81 straight pass attempts now without throwing an interception. He's been terrific at spreading the ball around.

LSU safety Chad Jones: You can watch football for a long time and not see a better punt return than Jones' 93-yard gem for a touchdown in LSU's 30-26 win over Mississippi State. It accounted for LSU's only points of the fourth quarter, but Jones wasn't finished. In the final minute, he tipped away a Mississippi State pass on third down at the goal line after going skyward to stop the over-the-top play and having enough athleticism to reach out and deflect the play-action pass. The Tigers would have been toast without him Saturday.

Auburn quarterback Chris Todd: The Tigers' senior quarterback has them scrambling on the Plains to find out what the school record is for touchdown passes in a season. He threw five more Saturday in Auburn's 54-30 win over Ball State and has 11 through four games. Todd only missed seven passes all night, and four of his touchdowns were 26 yards or longer. He's easily the SEC's comeback player of the year at this point.

Georgia place-kicker Blair Walsh: Some of the special-teams units in the SEC haven't been anything to write home about this season, but Walsh saved the Bulldogs from what would have been a devastating loss with a pair of fourth-quarter field goals. His 37-yarder as time expired was the game-winner in Georgia's 20-17 win over Arizona State.

Posted by's Chris Low

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina senior receiver Moe Brown called his teammates together Wednesday night at the team hotel and offered a brief history lesson that’s been pure misery for anybody who’s followed this program.

It’s called the Chicken Curse, and it goes something like this: The Gamecocks are allowed to get close, many times agonizingly close, but they just can’t seem to break through.

They entered Thursday night’s game against No. 4-ranked Ole Miss having never beaten a top-5 team at home, and they’d lost 22 straight games overall to top-5 teams.
 Paul Abell/US Presswire
 Steve Spurrier had to rely on his defense to defeat Ole Miss Thursday night.

Brown’s message to his teammates: We’ve been close to winning some of these. Let’s finish this thing and get it done.

“We wanted to come in and show the world what we can do. Now they know,” South Carolina safety Darian Stewart said. “This is the new Carolina.”

New Carolina or old Carolina, these Gamecocks are 3-1 and one play away at Georgia two weeks ago from being 4-0.

They’re doing it with old-school defense, just enough plays on offense and a genuine belief that this is their time to finally break through in the SEC.

It was Steve Spurrier’s biggest win at South Carolina since beating Florida his first season in Columbia.

“Our defense was sensational,” said Spurrier, marveling over the Gamecocks’ ability to hold the Rebels to 1-of-13 on third down. “We relied on our defense to win the game. It’s as simple as that.”

That may not be the ideal blueprint to win a game in the offensive-minded eyes of the Head Ball Coach, but he’s not giving this one back, either.

Not after so many near misses that have defined this program long before he showed up in Columbia.

“It was good for our team to get a big win at home, especially for our fans,” said Spurrier, who improved to 6-13 at South Carolina against nationally ranked teams.

The surest sign that perhaps this one was going to be different came in the second quarter when Ole Miss’ Marshay Green took off on a punt return and cut back across the field on his way to what looked like a sure touchdown.

But South Carolina junior punter Spencer Lanning made a textbook tackle in the open field to save a touchdown. The Rebels ended up getting no points because they faked a field goal that was snuffed out by the Gamecocks.

“The biggest play of the game was our punter making a tackle. We’re going to bring him over and let him show some tackling drills to our perimeter people,” joked Ellis Johnson, South Carolina’s assistant head coach for the defense.

Yep, it was that kind of night for the Gamecocks, the kind they expect to have many more of on down the road.

“College football is about being resilient,” said senior outside linebacker Eric Norwood, who had two more sacks and leads the SEC with six. “We don’t care about what’s happened in the past here. It’s about what’s going on right now.”


Posted by's Chris Low

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Not only is South Carolina’s Eric Norwood the best defensive player in the SEC right now -- maybe the best player period -- but he’s also a stickler for getting right to the point.

His take on South Carolina’s 16-10 victory over No. 4-ranked Ole Miss on Thursday night at Williams-Brice Stadium was short and sweet.

Almost as sweet as one of his blink-and-you-miss-it swoops to sack the quarterback.
 Paul Abell/US Presswire
 Eric Norwood recorded a pair of sacks in the Gamecocks' victory Thursday night.

“They had a lot of hype, but we weren’t going to put them on a pedestal,” said Norwood, who had two more sacks to raise his SEC-leading total to six and dominated the game for much of the night.

“This wasn’t an upset. We beat them last year. If they had killed us 70-0 last year, then yeah, it probably would have been an upset. There was no reason we couldn’t come in here and beat these guys.”

And there’s no reason to believe, after watching the Rebels’ disjointed offensive effort Thursday, that Ole Miss was ever a bona fide top-5 team.

Top 5 in hype, maybe. But in substance?

This is a team that had a lot to prove coming into Thursday night’s game and left with even more to prove.

One thing that will be different is that the Rebels -- whose claim to fame this season was beating up on Memphis and Southeastern Louisiana -- won’t have to worry about dragging around a top 5 ranking for a while.

Probably a long while.

“I’m glad it’s gone so we can get back to working and win some ballgames,” said Ole Miss left tackle Bradley Sowell, who had the longest night of all the Rebels in trying to block Norwood. “You can’t really pay attention to [the ranking] anyway. I’m glad it’s over with so everyone can just stop talking about it and play ball.”

Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said he never sensed his club was feeling the pressure of being ranked so highly.
 Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
 Jevan Snead never got on track Thursday night, completing just 7 of 21 passes for 107 yards.

But it was clear Thursday that the Rebels (2-1) have a ways to go, particularly offensively. Junior quarterback Jevan Snead finished 7-of-21 for 107 yards and was sacked four times. Ole Miss has serious protection problems.

The Gamecocks hit Snead early and kept hitting him. It’s the most Snead has been hit since he took over last season as the Rebels’ starter.

“He had a little bit of the happy feet,” Norwood said. “But when you’ve got guys like Cliff [Matthews], Ladi [Ajiboye] and Travian [Robertson] bringing it from the middle and then from the outside, it’s going to make it hard.”

The most curious part of Ole Miss’ game plan Thursday was not getting Dexter McCluster involved until the fourth quarter. He only had four touches through the first three quarters.

“We felt like every time we had a plan to get him the ball, we’d look up and it would be third-and-15, and you just can’t play that kind of ball,” Nutt said.

Ellis Johnson, South Carolina’s assistant head coach for the defense, has seen Ole Miss up close for several years now having spent some time at Mississippi State before joining the Gamecocks’ staff last season.

He said the Ole Miss team from a year ago was as talented as he’s seen. But this one may be missing a few key pieces.

“You lose a first-rounder in both fronts and a few little things like that, and I’m not sure they’re hitting on all eight cylinders like they were last year,” Johnson said. “It’s still a really good football team, and they’ll show back up.

“It just looked like they were a little out of sync or something.”

And out of their element as a top-5 team.

Posted by's Chris Low

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- At last, Steve Spurrier has his signature win at South Carolina, and Ole Miss has problems.

Big problems.

The Gamecocks (3-1) held on to beat the No. 4-ranked Rebels 16-10 on Thursday night at Williams-Brice Stadium. It was the first victory for South Carolina over a top-5 team since beating No. 3-ranked North Carolina in 1981.

The Rebels (2-1) looked nothing like an SEC contender most of the night, although they at least made things interesting in the fourth quarter after falling behind 16-3.

It was a nightmarish outing for Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead, who finished 7-of-21 for 107 yards and was hounded at every turn by the South Carolina pressure. The Gamecocks sacked Snead four times, and senior outside linebacker Eric Norwood had two of those in a dominant defensive performance.

Posted by's Chris Low

COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina leads No. 4-ranked Ole Miss 6-3 at halftime in a battle of field goals. Both teams have made a ton of mistakes.

Here’s a halftime analysis from the game:

Best player of the half: South Carolina senior outside linebacker Eric Norwood raised his SEC-leading sack total to five with a first-quarter sack of Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead. Norwood spearheaded a South Carolina pass rush that kept Snead bottled up and limited him to just 30 passing yards in the first half.

Turning point: South Carolina punter Spencer Lanning saved a touchdown when he tripped up Ole Miss’ Marshay Green in the open field in the second quarter. It looked like Green was gone as he cut back across the field, but Lanning made a shoe-string tackle at the South Carolina 31. The Rebels ended up not getting any points after a fake field goal was snuffed out by the Gamecocks.

Stat of the game: The Gamecocks have six penalties for 45 yards in the first half, and all of them were costly. They had their fourth touchdown pass of the season called back on an ineligible man downfield penalty. Prior to that penalty, they had the ball first-and-goal at the Ole Miss 2, but senior center Lemuel Jeanpierre was called for holding, moving the ball back to the 12.

Posted by's Chris Low

COLUMBIA, S.C. – Ole Miss and South Carolina both have reasons to be confident about Thursday night’s game (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET). Here’s a look at the top three things each team has going for it as we count down to kickoff:


Defensive line muscle: Even without a fully healthy Greg Hardy, Ole Miss has one of the deepest defensive lines in college football. The Rebels hope to get a few plays out of Hardy, who sprained his ankle in the opener. They just don’t know how many plays. Even so, look for Ole Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix to be aggressive. Having a front four of Kentrell Lockett and Marcus Tillman at the ends and Jerrell Powe and Ted Laurent at the tackles opens up a lot of things for everybody else on defense.

Snead’s due: It’s not like junior quarterback Jevan Snead has stunk up the joint in the Rebels’ first two games. He’s been just OK and finished strong against Memphis in the opener. The thing is: He’s a lot better than just OK, and you know he’s going to break out sooner or later with one of those games where he carves a defense apart. The Gamecocks are young in the secondary, so you can bet that Snead will take a few shots.

Running to glory: The Rebels’ running game is one of the more diverse running games in the league. They can line it up and come at you with more of a traditional approach with any combination of Brandon Bolden, Enrique Davis and Cordera Eason. But they also keep you off balance with Dexter McCluster and that Wild Rebel formation. Senior right tackle John Jerry is a devastating run-blocker, and Ole Miss likes to run behind him. Senior center Daverin Geralds is also solid up the middle, but the Rebels are hurting right now at fullback because of injuries. They may play 315-pound offensive lineman Mark Jean-Louis some at fullback against the Gamecocks.


Playing to the crowd: The home-field advantage at Williams-Brice Stadium, especially in a night game, can be a huge factor. That is, if South Carolina will let it be a factor. Playing well early and keeping the crowd in it will be crucial for the Gamecocks, who would love to get ahead from the outset and put Ole Miss in a position where the Rebels are having to throw on every down. Making checks and making adjustments at the line of scrimmage can be pretty difficult when nobody can hear anything.

The Big ‘E’: The SEC defensive MVP award through the first quarter of the season goes to South Carolina senior outside linebacker Eric Norwood, who leads the SEC with four sacks. He’s not just a pass-rusher, either, as evidenced by his interception return for a touchdown against Georgia. Norwood and junior end Cliff Matthews are a handful for any offensive line, but they will be matched up against a left side of the Ole Miss offensive line that’s been shaky this season. Sophomore left tackle Bradley Sowell is a first-year starter.

Stephen Garcia takes flight: The Gamecocks’ sophomore quarterback is improving weekly, which is music to the ears of the South Carolina fans who endured what had to seem like an eternity of Garcia making more news off the field than on the field. He’s throwing the ball with more confidence, seeing the field better and will no doubt set his sights on an Ole Miss secondary that’s the most unproven part of that defense. The Rebels will come after him, but Garcia is one of the best quarterbacks in the league when it comes to escaping pressure.

Posted by's Chris Low

It’s the last thing South Carolina’s defense needed to happen.

The Gamecocks have played three games, with No. 4-ranked Ole Miss coming to town Thursday, and they’re already scrambling to keep guys on the field because of injuries.

Six starters or backups are nursing injuries on defense, which not only has a short week to get ready, but is facing its greatest challenge yet in a Jevan Snead-led Ole Miss offense that's fresh and leading the SEC in scoring.

“We don’t have a defensive unit right now. We have a bunch of bodies and a bunch of guys trying hard,” said Ellis Johnson, South Carolina’s assistant head coach for the defense. “We’re young in some spots. We’re beat up in other spots. We’re thin in some spots. And right now, there’s nothing you can look at out there except for effort and heart and say we can hang our hat on that.”

It’s questionable at this point whether the Gamecocks will get defensive tackle Nathan Pepper back for the Ole Miss game. He and backup tackle Kenny Davis both have high ankle sprains. Pepper was already dealing with knee issues and missed the Florida Atlantic game.

Strong safety Darian Stewart and end Cliff Matthews both played with neck stingers in the Florida Atlantic game, while All-SEC outside linebacker Eric Norwood didn’t play at all in the second half after suffering a shoulder contusion. The Gamecocks were already missing middle linebacker Rodney Paulk, who’s out for the season with a torn ACL.

Johnson didn’t want to take any chances with Norwood, which is the reason he pulled him in the second half. He’s going to play against Ole Miss, but the problem is that the Gamecocks are right on that threshold of being in major trouble if anybody else goes down in the front seven.

“It’s frustrating because we have to cut back to almost vanilla because there are so many young players out there and so many kids out there that haven’t practiced,” Johnson said. “We’re not good enough physically to overcome that right now. Hopefully, we’ll get some of those guys back and go from there.”

The Gamecocks will get junior tackle Ladi Ajiboye back from a three-game suspension, and that will help.

The other area where all these injuries come into play is special teams. The Gamecocks started the season with younger players on kickoff coverage, and that unit suffered. They’ve since added several starters to the coverage teams, but that really gets dicey when so many guys on defense are already banged up.

Posted by's Chris Low

HOOVER, Ala. -- South Carolina outside linebacker Eric Norwood is the SEC's active leader in career sacks (22) and career tackles for loss (43).

He's also a success story in the classroom.

Norwood, a two-time All-SEC selection, is scheduled to graduate in December with a degree in criminal justice. That's after being denied admission three times to South Carolina coming out of high school before finally getting in.

He's made the Dean's list several times, carries a 2.9 GPA and will graduate in three and a half years.

In high school, his GPA dipped to a 1.6. He got it up to a 2.0 and was barely able to squeak into South Carolina. Other schools, such as Georgia, backed off Norwood.

The Gamecocks stood by his side.

"Everything happens for a reason," Norwood said. "Some guys have to mess up before they get it right."

Norwood, who considered turning pro last season, said he plans to play around 252 pounds this season. He said reports that he played around 265 or 270 last year were exaggerated.

"I was 256," said Norwood, who conceded that he shot up around 280 during the summer when he was still playing defensive end.

Posted by's Chris Low

Spring practice is in full swing around the SEC, and here's a little bit of what's making headlines: